While preparing for a journey somewhere new, I often read fiction set in the place in question. India? Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. Morocco? Break out the Paul Bowles. Road trip across America? Kerouac's On the Road, of course.
What better way to get into the underbelly of a country, a culture, than through the ever-curious, angst-ridden soul of a fellow human being on that timeless quest for meaning, whether that person is real or imagined? It's no wonder travel is an omnipresent theme of modern fiction. Since physical journeys often correspond to internal ones, the emotional arc of any worthwhile literary antihero is often set against a backdrop of lost highways, secret beaches or urban jungles -- to list but a few wanderlust clichés.
Or, in the case of Charles Barca, protagonist of The Sabbatical, all of the above. This debut novel by Montreal entertainment lawyer-turned-writer Frederick Pinto is a clever, edgy, fast-paced take on man's timeless quest for meaning and authenticity within a society that celebrates the superficial and values monetary gain over creative and spiritual fulfillment.
When we meet Barca, successful young founder of a visionary music business start-up, he has just been fired and tossed out on his butt. In a matter of days, the charmingly flawed alpha male loses everything he's worked so hard to build, including professional reputation, rock star cachet, and hot girlfriend. Forced to re-examine not only his present life and future goals but also his internal value system, greater sense of purpose and relationship to authenticity, Barca sets off on a drug and booze-fueled fugue to New York, Cannes, Prague and, finally, Rio, where he rediscovers his innocence through various characters he meets, and reconnects with the idealism that once upon a time inspired him to get into the music business.
"Leaving where you come from naturally prompts you to question the thought patterns you've built there," said Pinto, who wrote The Sabbatical over two years, during nights and weekends. "You can only put something in context from the outside. But the easy answers we initially get in the exotic foreign land are often a kind of fool's gold, an escapist trap, which is something Charles realizes throughout the book."
Certainly, from a travel perspective, Pinto's rapid-fire writing style and mercurial social analysis make for a very unique, thought-provoking perspective on the spots Charles visits. We learn not only about cultural elements, what each place feels and smells like and his hilarious misadventures throughout, but we're also privy to his detached, radical observations on various socio-political elements of day to day life. Cultural deficiencies and successes, personified by juicy characters like an intellectual Czech hooker and angelic hippie DJ, jump out at him and cause him to reevaluate modern society as well as his own choices within it. Yet ever sympathetic, Charles himself isn't spared the laser of his own critical yet humor-laced gaze.
Is he correct in his diagnoses? Well, while I haven't yet visited Rio or Prague, I do have some experience in the fickle and hedonist music industry, and must commend Pinto's very accurate satire of that crazy world and the archetypes within it. He nailed it.
Furthermore, I got the impression that each place kind of resonated with a part of his psyche, cementing the book's travel as self-discovery subtext.
"Montreal and New York are Charles's default urban settings, while Cannes represents the music industry attempting to swallow him; beautiful in appearance, insidious in its effects," said Pinto, who cites Uruguay as one of his favorite destinations. "Rio for him is a hope for something different: natural, wild, spontaneous. But he quickly realizes he's maladapted for it. The density. the heat, it all oppresses his delicate Northern taste for peace and comfort; air conditioning and Internet. Still, Rio holds an undefinable attraction that allows him to at least hope for something different to emerge from there."
New York, Pinto continues, represents loneliness in the crowd and relationships, while Montreal represents bureaucratic chaos and the double-edged sword of Barca's local stardom.
"As children of the 1990s, we had this enormous idealism," Pinto says. "Today, we find ourselves with very little of that in terms of where Western society is going as a whole. We went through the system, came in, worked within it for a while. The book is kind of like a pause moment, like, "Whoa. What am doing here? What am I really living my life for, what's going on here?"
A question that has inspired many a journey, to be sure...